When Tristram Hunt, former shadow education secretary, wanted to speak at Woodbridge High School during the 2015 election campaign, Redbridge council banned him. The local authority (LA) said the visit would breach rules governing council behaviour during ‘purdah’, the run-up to an election.
Redbridge was able to stop the visit because Woodbridge High School was LA-maintained. It was, therefore, governed by strict rules about political campaigning.
Academies and free schools may think such rules don’t apply to them. But academies and free schools are charities. If they ignore these rules they could be breaching Charity Law and, if they receive LA grants, flouting LA rules.
Schools Week (Week in Westminster column, 19 May 2017, not available on line) revealed how education secretary Justine Greening visited Bedford Free School on 11 May with Conservative candidate Richard Fuller to open a new hall. Schools Week reported how Fuller and the school’s principal, Mark Lehain, Senior Policy Fellow at the right-leaning think tank Policy Exchange who also sits on the Advisory Council of Parents and Teachers for Excellence, ‘gave gushing quotes to the local press’. Fuller posted an article on his website.
There’s nothing wrong with MPs visiting schools if they focus on the work of MPs in Parliament or visits are part of their constituency work. But Parliamentary rules remind MPs such visits must be non-partisan.
There are no MPs during purdah. Any visit to schools by former MPs standing for re-election would be from candidates not MPs. The MyAcademies website gives this advice to academies:
‘Purdah can be a stressful time for schools since they cannot be seen to be promoting any one party or any one candidate. So ensure that your school and fellow members of staff exercise caution and don’t do anything that could be used for political leverage: photo opportunities, interviews and your use of resources. ‘
Such advice could be dismissed as general guidance rather having legal backing. But Charity Law applies. This states:
‘…charities should be especially wary of associating or becoming associated in the minds of the public, with a particular candidate or political party.’
And government guidance on political activities by charities makes it clear:
‘During an election period, the need for impartiality and balance is intensified, and charities must take particular care when undertaking any activities in the political arena.’
There are further restrictions on charities receiving local authority funding. Accounts for Bedford Free School for year ending 31 August 2016 show it received £31,621 in LA grants. This means it must not publish any material which could appear to influence support for or against a political party. Such material includes printed or electronic media, TV/radio broadcasts and interviews.
A visit by a candidate to an academy during purdah risks associating the academy with just one candidate. A photo-op for a candidate opening a new academy facility during purdah risks breaking election rules. Both activities appear to break Charity Law. Perhaps the Charities Commission should investigate.